Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN); the Anti-Semitism Controversy
By Ralph Seliger, Web Editor, The Third Narrative
Ameinu and its allies in The Third Narrative (TTN) have conducted an ongoing conversation regarding disturbing statements from Rep. Ilan Omar (D-Minnesota), which reminded most American Jews of age-old anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish money and power. Most of these opinions were expressed after Omar’s apology for her “It’s all about the Benjamins” tweet (intended as a barb against AIPAC), but before her fresh comment reminiscent of the “dual loyalty” charge often aimed at Jews (“I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says that it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country”).
Our discussion began with this Faculty Lounge blog post by TTN’s Steven Lubet, a professor of law at Northwestern U. He indicated in part that:
Claims about the influence of “Jewish money” . . . have a long and sordid history in the U.S., . . . [But] Omar was born in Somalia and did not immigrate to the U.S. until she was 15, after spending four years in a refugee camp in Kenya.
It is understandable that she would be unaware of some classic anti-Semitic tropes, although a U.S. representative ought to make a point of educating herself. . . .
This is a shortened version of what Prof. Joan S. Friedman of the College of Wooster had to say in our TTN email discussion:
We have always experienced and treated modern anti-Semitism as an outgrowth of the same ground where Christian anti-Judaism flourished. The modern adaptation of anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic tropes to the Islamic context is inseparable from the opposition to Zionism and Israel.
My concern is the growing number of comments not dissimilar to what Rep. Omar said about AIPAC — variations on “Jewish power” and “Jewish money” — from students from south and east Asia who are neither Muslim nor Christian, and had no idea that their comments would be construed as anti-Semitic. For anyone under the age of 50 — and certainly for millennials — who did not grow up having lessons about the Holocaust in school, and who understand nothing about the theology behind Christian Zionism, ideas of Jewish vulnerability are laughable. After all, what they see is that the US backs Israel’s occupation to the hilt; that AIPAC itself boasts about its lobbying success; that a right wing, racist, Islamophobic US president stuffs his SOTU address with blatant sops to the Jews; and that when a (black) US president tried to challenge Israel, he lost the fight.
There are hundreds of millions of people out there who do not share the cultural context that gives anti-Semitism its infamy, and to whom it appears obvious that Jews show up in significant, “powerful” roles wildly disproportionate to their percentage of the world’s population. In other words, just because someone draws the conclusion that Jews appear to have surprising political power, we can’t label them an anti-Semite.
This prompted Dr. Marcia Kupfer, an independent scholar, to comment in part that:
The problem is not that some of your students among many others (e.g., Rep. Omar) lack the requisite background that might prepare them to be sensitive to anti-Semitic tropes. The problem is that power and wealth are “judaized.”
The following is from Dr. Nigel Paneth of Michigan State University:
We, and not just the anti-Semites, seem to see the Rothschilds and the Schiffs first, and forget the ordinary shlemazls who populated the great ghettos of Europe and the Middle East until not so long ago.
For example, there’s George Orwell’s description of the ghetto of Marrakesh in the 1930’s. The extreme poverty of Moroccan Jews did nothing to quell the standard view that the “Jews are the real owners of this country.” Let not the relative success of Jews in the Goldene Medinapermit us to provide some outs or excuses for anti-Semitism.
The anti-Semitic trope has never required actual material success, and non-Jewish ethnic groups with material success in the US do not get tarred with the same brush.
And this take is from Ralph Seliger, TTN’s web editor:
Given Rep. Omar’s track record, I have trouble trusting her on our issues, but I do think it speaks well for her that she immediately apologized. It also is in her favor that she maintains friendships and political relationships with Jews (and not just JVP-ish Jews).
It’s useful and important for Jews to maintain their lines of communication with her. I do not believe that she’s truly anti-Semitic, but she’s a hard sell when it comes to Israel; and given the reality of what Israel is like today, I’m not surprised.
Alan Weisbard, emeritus professor of law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was “trying out some thoughts” as follows:
For those raised in a largely Arab or Muslim surround, whose principal political commitment is to the Palestinian cause, and who think Israelis before they think Jews as a diasporic people, I wonder if we are talking about the same phenomenon as Christian/European antisemitism? Their negative feelings about Jews in the diaspora, which we identify as anti-Semitism, may flow from their anti-Zionism, rather than the other way around.
Jeff Weintraub concurred, noting that “one of the distinctive features of our era is that anti-Zionism can often promote anti-semitism as much as the other way around.” Prof. Lubet also agreed, offering his assessment of the relationship between anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments:
There are those whose expression of anti-Semitism is inspired by antagonism toward Israel: Ilhan Omar and Linda Sarsour are in this category. And those whose antagonism toward Israel is inspired by anti-Semitism: Tamika Mallory probably goes in this category (along with David Duke and Louis Farrakhan).
I would say that the former are likely well-meaning and not essentially bigoted. But the latter . . .!
In the wake of Omar’s hint at a “dual loyalty” smear in her more recent speech, Ralph Seliger expressed disappointment that the House resolution condemning anti-Semitism (which she voted for) seemed “nebulous and pointless” for not focusing more exclusively on anti-Semitism. He later added that:
The focus shouldn’t primarily be on Omar, but rather her implication that it’s illegitimate for Jews to try to advance their views – whether thru AIPAC or any “pro-Israel” lobby, which after all includes J Street and Americans for Peace Now.
I would have wanted to see a House resolution strongly affirming the First Amendment right of Jews, like all Americans, to lobby and act politically in support of their perceived interests (“the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government . . .”).
Prof. Rebecca Lesses of Ithaca College (speaking on her own behalf) defended the resolution’s mention of Islamophobia:
I was glad that the House resolution ended up condemning both antisemitism and hatred of Muslims. While it’s definitely not Islamophobic to criticize Ilhan Omar for using classic anti-Semitic stereotypes, people on the right have seized on this incident to attack her as a terrorist Muslim (for example, the poster in the West Virginia statehouse blaming her for 9/11!). And note that 23 Republican members of the House voted against the resolution – apparently because they couldn’t stomach the thought of condemning anti-Muslim bigotry.
Steve King (Iowa white nationalist lunatic) voted present. I don’t think the resolution was nebulous or pointless.
Jeffry V. Mallow, emeritus professor of physics, Loyola University Chicago, provides a critique of the House resolution and of Omar‘s statements:
The Democrats voted unanimously in favor of the resolution (meaning even Omar herself). The resolution is pretty good on naming and condemning various forms of anti-Semitism (better than I would have thought). There’s a strong emphasis on anti-Semitism, although the original goal was a full emphasis on anti-Semitism. Also it obliquely criticizes Omar:
“resolved, That the House of Representatives—(1) rejects the perpetuation of anti-Semitic stereotypes in the United States and around the world, including the pernicious myth of dual loyalty and foreign allegiance, especially in the context of support for the United States-Israel alliance”
So what is wrong? Unless something has changed, Omar is still doubling down on her dual loyalty (actually disloyalty) claim, supported by Sanders, Warren, and Harris, who shifted the discussion to “all attacks on Israel aren’t anti-Semitic.” (True, but that’s not the point here.)
The House didn’t name the perp, although they did take Omar to task as per Item (1) of the resolution, quoted above. If anyone had made an anti-Black or anti-Muslim or anti-Latinx or anti-LGBT or anti-woman remark they would have been called out by name in a censure resolution.
Which brings me to the final point: “kitchen-sinking” the Jews. If anyone had made an anti-other group remark, a resolution would have addressed only the prejudice against that group. For anti-Semitism they have to “legitimate” it by throwing in the kitchen sink of all the other groups.
Full disclosure: I have a dog in this race. Cpl. Joseph Mallow (d. 1998), US Army WWII, stationed in France. How dare she?